The Walking Cure: Nature/Culture Photos by DeWitt Cheng, Avenue 25 Gallery, 32 West 25th Avenue near El Camino, 2nd floor, San Mateo (M-F 8:30-5)

Nature/Culture Photographs by DeWitt Cheng
January 13-March 9, 2018
Reception Saturday January 13, 2018, 1:00-4:30

 I never before saw a plant so full of life, so perfectly spiritual. It seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy. Could angels in their better land show us a more beautiful plant?  — John Muir
Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. — Walker Evans1
 In March, 2011, I reviewed an exhibition on the life and work of the northern California naturalist John Muir: “A tireless champion for a wilderness that he believed to be divinely created, spiritually redemptive, and worthy of protection from Gilded Age laissez-faire industrial expansion, Muir saw getting back to the land at least occasionally as balm for "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people" — a judgment shared by contemporary visitors to the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks seeking their own "mountain baptism."2

 While I as a longtime San Francisco resident, an art critic and curator, am anything but a rugged outdoorsman in the Muir mold, and largely confine my jaunts to urban and suburban fastnesses, I have found myself more and more interested in photography during the past decade or so. While I bought my first digital camera—a 4MP Canon A530—in order to make visual notes for reviewing gallery and museum shows, I found that I was seeing the everyday world more and more through eyes trained by art studies. Scenes reminiscent of Romantic landscape paintings, architectural photography, and mixed-media modernist abstractions seemed to appear with increasing regularity. Nowadays, I walk nearly every day, partly from visual curiosity, and partly for exercise, or cheap therapy: the ‘walking cure’ title is a joke version of Freud’s talking cure, which I recycled for a piece on the great photographer, Walker Evans2. I shoot several hundred shots a week, many of which I post on Facebook (after editing and some minimal tweaking). Everyone loves San Francisco, and I am happy to share my interpretations of its scenic splendors as well as its absurd or gritty side, especially these days, as the city is changing so radically: ‘refreshing’ and reinventing itself as the Digital Oz.

 My thanks to Gallery 25 Curator Charles Anselmo, whom I met, years ago, at Stanford Art Spaces, with whom I journeyed on photo safari to Havana in 2012, and with whom I serve as art juror for UC San Francisco’s Art for Aids annual auction. His interest in the images and his superlative printing skills are responsible for this show, my first foray back into the art world as a visual artist since taking up the camera of the itinerant, flâneur and pilgrim.



Way Bay at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly January 2018)


The Bay Area as Creative Center at BAM

Our local art museums have been on a roll lately, with exhibitions of Edvard Munch, Claude Monet, Walker Evans, Joan Brown, Charles Howard, Robert Rauschenberg, Martin Wong, and Gustav Klimt. Berkeley Art Museum continues the hot streak with an ambitious survey of two hundred-odd works— with film, performance, poetry, and ephemera as well as traditional paintings, drawings, and prints—from the past three centuries, including works by Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, Sargent Johnson, Chiura Obata, Charles Howard and Rosie Lee Tompkins. Several dozen of the works are new acquisitions made specifically for Way Bay, with sizeable representations of emerging women and minority artists. Complementing BAMPFA’s collections are artifacts borrowed from UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Besides celebrating the area’s rich legacy of art, the show examines the influence of the place on its widely disparate artists, who range from precolonial Ohlone Indians and nineteenth-century settlers through postwar modernists educated on the GI Bill and today’s postmodernist, global-culture explorers of mixed media and sociopolitical commentary. Historical and documentary films will play, uninterrupted, with recordings of Bay Area artists and performances bringing the locale’s creative past to life and celebrating the continuity of artistic expression. Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA Director and Chef Curator, who created the show along with Film Curator Kathy Geritz and Engagement Associate David Wilson, asserts the show’s goal:  “... not a conventional historical survey but rather an open-ended and provocative attempt to reveal hidden currents and connections among works from disparate times, cultures, and communities.”

Among the works to be shown are: Sara Arledge’s 1940s pioneering glass slide abstract paintings; one of Erica Deeman’s Brown series of photographic portraits of black men, “Marvin” (2015); Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley period (1953-66) painting, “Studio Wall” (1966); Joanne Leonard’s sensitive photographs of 1950s West Oakland neighborhoods; Gordon Onslow Ford’s Surrealist oil, “Painter and the Muse” (1943); and Xara Thustra’s monumental 9/11 memorial painting. Way Bay runs through May 6, 2018; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; DeWitt Cheng


Gods and Heroes in Color, Legion of Honor, San Francisco (reprinted from, 12/2/17)

Editors' Roundtable
by DeWitt Cheng

"But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul. .,, Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances …"
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter XLII, 'The Whiteness of the Whale" 

After my recent dissatisfaction with the new, hip programming at San Francisco's Legion of Honor — which, in my opinion, trashed the institution's own collection of Rodins, not to mention the tragic humanist tradition of western art — it is a pleasure to see the balance between old and new restored. A pairing of Rodin sculptures with contemporaneous paintings by Gustav Klimt sheds light on the erotic dimension of these two late nineteenth-century greats; and the exhibition "Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World" presents a strong, if long standing case that the Greco-Roman tradition that we have come to associated with pure, if blanched idealized form, wrought with dazzling skill in Pentelic marble from quarries north of Athens, is a cultural myth. I'll focus on the latter in this column. 

The statues that we grew up regarding as pure, visually chaste (even when depicting the sexual harassments of Zeus/Jupiter), and (to cite Nietzsche) Apollonian, rational, intellectual and enlightened, as opposed to Dionysian, emotional and ecstatic to the point of violence, were painted, apparently rather gaudily. On my first visit, somewhat appalled by the busy patterning and bright colors, I was reminded of Marlene Dietrich's [actually Greta Garbo's] comment at the premiere of Jean Cocteau's film, "La Belle et la Bête," on seeing the tortured, mysterious Beast magically transformed into the pretty, perfumed prince (both played by the painfully handsome Jean Marais): "But give me back my poor Beast!" Even if historically inaccurate, I found myself missing the clarity of pure marble. On my second visit, I looked at the scientific and historical evidence and found it convincing, even if some of the restorations still seemed overly assertive in a way that the brightened colors of the cleaned Sistine Chapel frescos never were, a generation ago, after the removal of five centuries of candle smoke and soot. 

The exhibit's core works are painted reproductions of works held by the sculpture collection, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt and other institutions, produced by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann using up-to-date technology, including ultraviolet scanning (for more info go to When classical sculptures were excavated during the Renaissance, they were denuded by time and erosion of the paint they once wore, with the faint traces of pigment either nearly invisible, or, after neoclassical theorists had exalted their shining purity of form, scrubbed white. The exhibition makes clear that Johann Joachim Wincklemann (1717-1768), whose "History of Art in Antiquity" (1764) was to prove so foundational, acknowledged that classical statuary was indeed polychromed. Nevertheless, his championing of idealized classical form — which may owe something to his homosexuality — carried the day, perhaps answering to a cultural counter-reaction to the frivolity of the fading Rococo style. 

Even the best and brightest can be wrong, of course. A group of painted figures, laid out in Rosekrans Court, beneath the Legion's pyramidal skylight, reconstructs sculptures made for the Doric Aphaia Temple, built on the island of Aegina, east of mainland Greece, about 480 BC, and excavated in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Aphaia was a mother goddess, and this particular temple was a favorite subject for artists of the time, including Turner. The figures that were made for the temple's western pediment treated the Trojan war, so the supposition that the two kneeling archer figures represented, respectively, the Greek warrior Teucer, brother of Ajax, and the Trojan prince Paris, seems plausible, even if the flat egg-tempera painting and bright color, so reminiscent of dolls and plastic action figures, destroy any sense of Homer's "strong force of fate." Teucer is dressed in a white tunic soberly decorated with blue bands and a horsehair-crested war helmet; while Paris, in multicolored diamond patterned tights, is as gaily turned out as a, well, bridegroom — or, as the didactic wall labels suggest, a decadently feminized Asiatic. A trio of warrior heads nearby provokes the same response from this viewer: the unpainted one, in synthetic marble, roughly carved, with eyes blank, has a poetic mystery that is entirely absent from the two finely carved, painted heads on adjoining pedestals, which look fanciful and slightly absurd to my 21st century eye. It is like 2D comic-book characters popped into 3D space, which has thoroughly different pictorial standards that of course have nothing to do with 5th century BC visual intentions. 

The whiteness of marble, unpainted by time, lends a melancholy and even stoic dignity to the figures, which the painting, however skillfully done, removes. A case in point is how the Temple of Aphiaia figures are joined by other painted reconstructions, sometimes featuring gilding, metal or stone details, that share their visual impact: a pair of life-sized warriors, majestically martial, metallic, and nude but for helmets, shields and weapons, from the island of Riace; a mounted horseman from the Acropolis, wearlng leggings akin to Paris'; the Amazon princess Antiope holding the Greek hero/cad Theseus, the plaster cast painted only minimally; and a cast of a relief from the Parthenon, showing a boy and horseman, which through the magic of digital projection is alternately 'painted' and unpainted. 

Accompanying the painted reconstructions are classical and neoclassical (Canova, Cellini, Maillol) sculptures from the Fine Arts Museums and other collections, including two wonderful casts from the University of California, Berkeley: a monumental a caryatid (woman-as-column) made from the original at the Acropolis, in Athens, and a fragmentary horse and rider from the Acropolis Museum. Watercolor paintings made onsite at the excavations in the early nineteenth century by the antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the artist Simone Pomardi with the help of a camera obscura further enrich our understanding of how and why art is made and lost, rediscovered, appropriated, interpreted, misinterpreted and reinterpreted. I have merely touched on a few aspects of this important and revelatory show. In our age of enraged thersitical (a word that deserves revival) partisanship and Dionysian excess, it's also a call for scientific, historical, reality-based attention and analysis. 

"My life and fortunes are a monstrosity, partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty. If [only] I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect the way you would wipe color off a statue."
— Helen of Troy in Euripides' play, Helen,
5th century BC

Connie Goldman and Mikey Kelly, Chandra Cerrito Contemporary (reprinted from

Connie Goldman: GENEA and Mikey Kelly: VIBRATE
Chandra Cerrito Contemporary

 Hybridity, changing demographics and scandal are back in the news. A purportedly racially insensitive or even racist painting was shown at the Whitney Biennial to some liberal consternation; statues of Confederate generals were assailed by liberals and defended by conservatives in the wake of the shameful neo-nazi march in Charlotte NC; and sexual hanky-panky on a colossal scale has emerged, seemingly everywhere—including
the hushed precincts of influential art magazines. Some artworlders may have now come to believe, given the political correctness inculcated in colleges in recent years, that shouts and alarums are the goals of good art. They can be, especially in our tumultuous times, but we also need to consider, for aesthetic balance, the beauty and complexity afforded by art without sociopolitical overt agendas, art made because the artists were inner-driven and self-directed.

The dual solo shows by Bay Area artists Connie Goldman and Mikey Kelly—her second and his first at this Oakland gallery—make a compelling argument for the best kind of formalist practice: work of museum quality—both artists have been collected at that level—that explores pure painting creatively and, indeed, notwithstanding the crisp, immaculate facture—no painterly blobs and drips here—passionately. The dogma of 1960s hard-edge formalism deserved its ridicule by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word, with critics supposedly squinting slantwise across the canvas surface looking for suspicious painterly bumps, but the geometric abstraction tradition was always bigger than even Clement Greenberg; and the best reductivist or minimalist work—Mondrian, Reinhardt, Rothko, Newman, Stella et al.—was always about more than paint on canvas stretched over wood.

Goldman’s show takes its title Genea, from the Greek word for becoming or emerging, as in ‘genealogy’ or ‘generate.’  The artist cites her interest in the “tenuous equilibrium” in which people and the world exist (always, and not just post-Trump). Goldman: “Life is constant change. From one nanosecond to the next, from a minute to a decade, from a millimeter to a mile, there’s no chance of escaping the push and pull of time, nature, and volition.”  Connie Goldman’s eight painted MDF (a fine-grained pressed wood) relief sculptures, with their irregular polygonal shapes, ‘split-level’ planes, and vibrant color palettes, are meticulously constructed puzzles, with double meanings and perceptual ambiguities. Some planes seem folded over, like origami, or read as the shadows of other planes; some planes in these reliefs are elevated or recessed, suggesting geological or architectural models. The multiple perspectives, overlapping forms, illusory folds, painted edges, and contradictory color and form make works like “Genea VI,” “Genea X” and “Genea XI,” my favorite pieces, vibrate with contradiction; distillations of imagination and experimentation that defy logic, but achieve a hard-won but effortless-seeming perfection.

 Speaking of vibration and vibrancy, Mikey Kelly’s six overlapping-stripe acrylic paintings in Vibrate marry Op Art—Bridget Riley and Jesus Rafael Soto come to mind— with a compositional process involving algorithms, with the goal of what he calls ‘spirituality hacking.’  I am not clear on how the words that Kelly picks as titles are transformed or encoded by algorithms into these dazzling yet delicate ‘woven’ arrays of stripes—made with an automobile paint striper and straightedge, by the way—which seem to change from afar with the viewer’s movements, and, close up, suggest complex crystalline or architectural structures. Be Love Now V1.0 and Be Love Now V2.0, sixty-inch-diameter tondos, suggest both the yarn-string projects that many of us made as children, and the scanned images of planets, simplified by pixelation. Affirmations, a series of five twenty-four-inch square panels, carries a similar hidden spiritual message in its title, with the colored lines changing color according to the viewer’s angle of view and distance, as with the pointillist Divisionism of Seurat and Signac. Seven Names of God Prayer V2.0 with its vertical adjoining panels suggests (incorrectly) a prismatic version of the ROYGBIV rainbow color chart—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—or an abstract, meditative, New Age version, perhaps, of Monet’s sun-kissed Rouen Cathedral. The sun is god, as Turner said.—DeWitt Cheng